Tenmaya Beats the Devil – Tricksters and Society Upturned in Eccentric Family 2

It is good to see Eccentric Family back on the screen; its first series was an interesting, whimsical and yet surprisingly cutting take on mythology and family and the second series has set up an interesting dynamic to build on this basis; the second episode sets up a sense of powerlessness and a changed world that feels a more interesting take on ideas of a woeld losing its sense of wonder. Youth rebels against authority as the dandy Nidaime mocks older tengu as “frail, old [things]” spending their “last days meaninglessly” and “reliant on… pity” – and his worst insult is that the father he has rejected is “not worth killing.” Nostalgia and longing for absent things – centrally the woman Benten, so important in the previous series – has created a void.

Here I feel one can consider the validity of presentism and progress; time has passed, things have changed, but is change always good and is the past always worse than the present? Nidaime wants a new order, a fresh start in a world that has been depicted as quite hermetic and thus doubly upheaved by the anarchic behaviour of the younger generation, but he is clearly a disruptive, unpleasant presence. Things are not the same, and change is unnerving, but accepting those changes may not be the best thing. Nidaime has travelled abroad and returned an “English gentleman” – bringing foreign culture and rank and privilege to what has been a fairly established and steady society – his affectations are appealing to the brash Kinkaku and Ginkaku because, as the self-important youths, they like the disruptive influence of someone bringing cool and unusual foreign culture to a very traditional society.

Stories of a returning figure from foreign lands changed by travel are commonplace but I feel Eccentric Family‘s mythic focus – innately Japanese creatures in tanuki and tengu – places a different interpretation on this. A nation’s cultural makeup – its mythology and folkoric creatures – are being subsumed by foreign influences. Myths and legends are vital to a culture’s history and if the very fabric of tradition is internationalising, then arguments of whether this is destructive or not raised. Such questions are hugely complex and the balance between cultural inclusiveness and preservation of tradition is a matter fraught with issues of nationalism and prejudice, for sure, but what Eccentric Family feels like it is presenting is a world where the influential young are looking to a foreign influence as better than their status quo. It is a common theme, really – Western and later American influences in Japanese youth culture have lengthy historical precedent, while in England questions of the power of American culture are frequently raised. And, indeed, such questions of cultural soft power can be separated from ideas of nationalist supremacy; the preservation of traditions, dialects and subcultures is a different kind of argument, I feel, to the less welcome racist raging against multiculturalism.

It remains far too early in Eccentric Family to properly interrogate its handling of this issue, if it even pursues it on a level beyond Nidaime is uprooting the social structures he returns to with new ideas – but it is laying down an interesting cultural conflict as a theme. The order of things is uprooted on other levels; Yajiro questions why a marriage that was called off could not go ahead anyway as those granting permission are no longer present. Youth is questioning authority and looking for new structures.

However, episode 2 remains focused on unwanted influences on the mythical status quo; Tenmaya the sorcerer is its focus, and he is an unusual creature indeed. His shop appears on the roof of a shopping arcade, and he shows anarchic contempt for building laws and human authorities, using strange and grotesque magic to drive off critics. He claims “everything in this world is entertainment to me”, and accepts all challenges to his magical skill with easygoing arrogance. In saying “the most unpleasant thing in the world is getting bossed around by someone” he is presented as not so much a self-interested figure but one who does not care for tradition or rule and simply is quixotic. Indeed, he is not so much malicious as merely annoying and powerful enough to not simply be driven away. It is another pressure on the hermetic society depicted; someone who does not particularly care to fit in, rather than someone who is specifically come to break society down. There is something mythic to his love of games and desire to be “entertained” and “interested” – he is initially presented as a fae figure, “greater than” (in his words) the mythical creatures he has intruded upon. I am almost reminded in the initial confrontation with Yasaburo of ballads of the Devil or “elves” that set bizarre challenges to passers-by – from Scarborough Fair to The Devil Went Down to Georgia. Tenmaya can control the minds of others, cause chaos and fear – but yet chooses not to unless provoked. Kaisei claims, after he tricks Yasaburo, that “a tanuki getting tricked by a human is just pathetic” – but nevertheless someone has entered the mythic realm that is simply better, more quixotic, more playful and more ethereal than the traditional myths.

Yet for all this worrisome, disruptive change the episode sets out positive change; the Friday Fellows, who ate tanuki as if they were any other animal, face competition from the Thursday Club, who oppose the eating of tanuki. In the scene at Ayameike’s shop again tradition meets youth; Ayameike is nostalgic for the past, and knows Tenmaya as some figure who “brings the festivities” – his reunion with Yasaburo shows no hard feelings or ill-will, and very much presents him as a total third party, a mythic figure firmly with his roots in the human side of things, who indeed apparently wants to help people who help him. He likes “vulgarity” and “entertainment”, but shows the lack of concern for others’ feelings in his choice of entertainments that means he is an inadvertant threat – and it is revealed in time he has angered other supernatural beings and been evicted from the Friday Fellows. So, despite his mysterious introduction, he too is an outsider returning with new traditions. – just one happy to be painted the outcast and to simply not fit in.

When Ayameike explains he was a damned soul who escaped from Hell, the suspicions one gets from his initial entry are confirmed; he is a damnably tenacious and clever mortal trickster, someone who beat the devil at his own game, so to speak, and returned to the mortal world to carry on being capricious. The clever human who beats the devil or fairy at their riddles and games is a folkloric standby, and Eccentric Family is subverting it by showing it from the perspective of those he tricks.

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